UK breaching EU air quality limits, Supreme Court rules

ClientEarth hails ‘historic’ ruling today (May 1) in long-running legal battle between the campaign group and government

The UK is in breach of EU air quality limits and failing its legal duty to tackle air pollution, the Supreme Court ruled today (May 1).

After a long-running series of court battles, campaign group ClientEarth had its appeal allowed by the UK Supreme Court, which ruled that the government had failed to put sufficient measures in place to comply with EU air pollution limits.

The Supreme Court today (May 1) ruled that the UK government had breached EU air quality limits (Photo - UK Supreme Court)

The Supreme Court today (May 1) ruled that the UK government had breached EU air quality limits (Photo – UK Supreme Court)

ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton described today’s judgment as an “historic ruling”.

The campaign group had previously expected a decision on the case, which was heard on March 7 2013, before Easter (see story).

The UK Supreme Court has now referred the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), as it said it raises ‘difficult issues’ of European law. The CJEU could decide to force the government to submit plans that would see the UK meet legal air quality limits.

Today’s judgment, handed down by Justice Lord Carnworth, states that ‘the way is open to immediate enforcement action at national or European level’. The case was also heard by Justice Lords Hope, Mance, Clarke and Sumption.

Under current government plans, 16 out of 43 areas or zones in the UK are not due to meet EU legal limits for nitrogen dioxide until 2020, while Greater London is not expected to meet these limits until 2025.

The last possible extension from the original 2010 deadline to meet these limits — when 40 of the 43 zones were in exceedance — is 2015. However, the government has not submitted an application to the European Commission for an extension to this deadline, and it is on this issue that ClientEarth launched their appeal to the UK Supreme Court.

Instead of submitting an extension application, ‘The Secretary of State submitted air quality plans under article 23 to the European Commission in order to demonstrate that the exceedance periods for those 16 zones and agglomerations would be kept as short as possible.

According to the judgment, both Client Earth and the government are now invited to make submissions to the Supreme Court as to the precise form of the questions to go to the CJEU.

Today’s ruling states: ‘The Supreme Court allows the appeal to the extent that it grants a declaration that there has been a breach of article 13 of the Air Quality Directive. The proceedings are stayed whilst the other issues concerning the Air Quality Directive are referred to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). The parties are requested to file submissions as to the precise form of the questions to be referred.’

‘Historic ruling’

Commenting on today’s ruling, ClientEarth chief executive James Thornton, said: “This historic ruling marks a turning point in the fight for clean air and will pile the pressure on Owen Paterson [UK environment minister]. Faced with court action on two fronts, he must now come up with an ambitious plan to protect people from carcinogenic diesel fumes. Until now, his only policy has been lobbying in Europe to try and weaken air pollution laws.”

“The Supreme Court recognised that this case has broader implications for EU environmental law: The government can’t flout environmental law with impunity. If the Government breaks the law, citizens can demand justice and the courts must act.”

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) declined to comment specifically on the case, but a spokeswoman said: “Air quality has improved significantly in recent decades and almost all of the UK meets EU air quality limits for all pollutants.”

‘Wake-up call’

Commenting on the Supreme Court ruling today, chair of the London Assembly’s environment committee, Murad Qureshi, said: “Today’s decision should be a wakeup call for the government and the Mayor. It is unacceptable that while 4,000 Londoners die prematurely each year because of air pollution, Boris Johnson’s response has been to kick serious action that would tackle the problem down the line for a future Mayor to deal with.

“Air pollution is the second biggest public health risk in the capital. That London will not meet legal limits on NO2 pollution until 2025 shows exactly how much of a priority the Mayor gave the issue during his first term.”

Also commenting on today’s judgment, Friends of the Earth campaigner, Jenny Bates, said: “This is a significant judgement that ministers must not ignore. The UK’s attitude to air pollution is a national scandal — thousands of people die prematurely every year because of poor air quality.

“We urge ministers to take urgent action to tackle this crisis, including scrapping plans to build more roads.”


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Ian cook
Ian cook
11 years ago

This is great news, but how can we as a small protest group use this legislation to best effect against a proposed planned new road the A555 manchester airport link road, where air quality issues have been almost ignored and levels on the affected roads are already 50% higher than EU rules. Especially where the road is planned to run within 150 yards of a school playground, and Stockport council are saying there is nothing to worry about!!!

George Osborne now apparently has the power to overrule andvsteamrollervthrough any decision on the building of roads for the economic benefit of the UK, but the business plan on this road shows little or no economic benefit…….

What do you suggest we do to stop this badly planned and poorly environmentally presented road to nowhere??

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